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It’s well known that EKU Colonels serve Kentucky’s communities. Across various fields, EKU graduates lead, innovate and make a positive impact. This is especially true for EKU’s small business owners. They have a dream and go after it. They work hard to achieve success. They are driven by passion. And they thrive on local support. From elementary education to manufacturing technology graduates, from a brewery to industrial supplier, from just a handful of employees to dozens, these small business owners share the experience of an Eastern education. The following profiles highlight a variety of EKU’s small business owners and reflect on the impact they’re making in their fields and throughout Kentucky.

Ashley Buck, ’13 ’18 Little Pea Preschool • Eminence, Ky.

After earning a degree in early childhood education, Ashley Buck moved to her hometown in Henry County, Kentucky, and taught 5th grade. She always dreamed of starting a preschool and jumped at the opportunity when the local preschool closed their doors. Buck, along with her fellow teacher and now co-owner, opened Little Pea Preschool at full capacity in 2019. This fall, the duo expanded their business, nearly doubling the full-time staff and adding “The Pod” for infants aged six weeks and older. Buck said she loves helping children in her community grow and learn from a young age, but she is also driven by her own two children. “I want them to see that if you dream it, work hard and push yourself, you can make it happen!”

Tiara Holt, ’12 ’15 • Healing Essence • Richmond, Ky.

“I wanted to create a space for myself that I was able to freely practice the way that I choose, but also to be able to eventually provide a safe space for other clinicians to contract and have that same type of autonomy and flexibility,” said Tiara Holt, sociology and clinical mental health counseling graduate. She started Healing Essence in 2018 with a focus on holistic health and high-quality counseling services. As Holt’s business grew in Richmond and online, she brought on two contract clinicians and former classmates, Shana Goggins, ’13, and Kendra Maxwell, ’15. Holt’s upcoming goals include continuing to provide one-to-one counseling, plus offering mental health workshops, and expanding with additional locations in Shelbyville and Louisville, Kentucky.

Russ Sells, ’02 • Bluegrass Tool & Industrial • Lexington, Ky.

“I’m always looking for opportunities and quick to react to opportunities,” said Russ Sells, owner of Bluegrass Tool & Industrial in Lexington, Kentucky. The manufacturing technology graduate previously worked as a regional sales manager for S&K Air Power. He noticed factories needed support and consulting to supplement their reduced staff, in addition to manufacturing equipment. Taking advantage of a market rebound, Sells started his single-source industrial supply company in 2012. Bluegrass Tool has since acquired two companies — S&K Industrial and Alpha Material Handling — and now employs 50 people. Mr. Sells sees an opportunity for even more growth and plans to add locations and sales teams across more states over the next few years.

Austin Dacci, ’09 ’11 and Jamie Plummer, ’08 • Maiden City Brewery • Cynthiana, Ky.

What started as a weekend hobby among college roommates eventually turned into a microbrewery business for Austin Dacci and Jamie Plummer. Since they opened Maiden City Brewery, several other restaurants, cafes, bars and retail establishments have poured into the downtown area of Cynthiana, Kentucky. “I think it just took one group of people to roll the dice and give others confidence to take a chance,” Dacci said. Although they enjoy making and drinking good beer, Plummer sees their passion project “as an engine to spur community investment and pride in our small town.” The brewery has helped to revive their hometown, but Dacci says it’s the community’s loyalty that has enabled their business to flourish.

Mike Scott, ’04  • Hoop Dreams Lexington, Ky.

“Basketball saved my life,” said Mike Scott, owner of Hoop Dreams in Lexington, Kentucky. From his upbringing in Baltimore, Maryland, Scott credits a mentor for encouraging him to play basketball at a junior college and then later at EKU, where he earned a degree in exercise and sport science. Now through Hoop Dreams, Coach Mike gives back by mentoring youth and helping them develop life skills, such as adversity, perseverance, teamwork and dedication, through basketball. “I love that I get to help people,” he said. Driven by his passion for the sport and his family, Scott’s business has grown to include several employees and coaches and offers youth skills training, competitive basketball leagues, camps and clinics.

Mark Sweet, ’82 ’09 • Shield Environmental Associates Lexington & Louisville, Ky.

Equipped with a geology degree and extensive consulting experience, Mark Sweet was hired at Shield Environmental Associates in 2001 and worked his way up, becoming president of the company in 2017. Shield, an engineering and environmental consulting firm, manages environmental liabilities for clients in the United States and abroad. Although Sweet’s technical expertise contributes to his success in overseeing both environmental projects and a company of 24 employees, he’s discovered relationship building and communication skills to be just as important. “It’s rewarding when various elements of a project come together and are successful in meeting the goals of all involved parties,” Sweet said.

Rhonda Cornett, ’04   • Cornett Farm Fresh • London, Ky.

When Rhonda Cornett and her husband lost their full-time jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, they “found a way to make lemonade out of sour lemons.” They didn’t give up. Instead, they took the opportunity to grow their already full time family farm operation into a fruitful retail and produce store, Cornett Farm Fresh in London, Kentucky. “Feeding our community is extremely rewarding,” Cornett said. Furthermore, the agriculture education graduate says the business allows her to teach farming and gardening in a nontraditional way, “sharing basic knowledge and practice of how food gets on the table.” As the business blossoms, Cornett attributes their success to hard work and support from the local community.